By now you’ve probably heard a lot about the benefits of complementary and alternative medicine. Everything from meditation and acupuncture to vitamin supplements and herbal extracts have been shown to make documented, and often quite dramatic, inroads against conditions as varied as high blood pressure, arthritis, depression, and even cancer.
How far out would you go in the pursuit of health? Would you drink your own urine? Have yourself injected with ozone or mistletoe? Immerse yourself in turpentine and then let leeches suck your blood?
No these aren’t punishments for losing a dare—they, too, are part of the ever-growing trend of alternate therapies.
Demi Moore claims that leech therapy helped detoxify her blood. Nick Nolte tried the ozone injection, telling Larry King it causes the brain to be “more metabolized.”
British actress Sarah Miles has been drinking her own pee for 30 years, convinced it immunizes against allergies and wards off aging. And she is not the only one. Urine drinking has long been popular in parts of Asia and recently has been gathering Western fans—including the late J. D. Salinger. It’s called auto-urine therapy by its advocates, who claim the practice can cure a host of ailments, boost energy, and enhance sexual performance.
Don’t want to drink your urine? Madonna told Letterman she pees on her feet to ward off athlete’s foot.
Celebrity enthusiasm for alternative therapies has helped to make them more mainstream. In 2007, Americans spent $33.9 billion out-of-pocket on alternative medicine. 1 in 3.61 adults have received acupuncture or other alternative medical treatments. And the odds are even higher, 1 in 1.34 (75%), that an adult believes alternative medicines are at least as effective as traditional ones.
While alternative therapies are in vogue at the moment, they are certainly no passing fad. The Chinese have been using herbal medicine for thousands of years. Acupuncture has been around since the 2nd century B.C. Even urine therapy dates back to ancient Rome.
The real question is: Do they work?
There is no question many of them do, including vitamin and herbal supplements in the treatment of a host of diseases, and stress-relieving therapies for the treatment of pain, anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, acupuncture, which has a long list of applications, effectively treats joint pain in women receiving a certain type of breast cancer treatment. And when actress Suzanne Somers revealed that she had taken injections of mistletoe as a treatment for the same disease, many people scoffed; now the MD Anderson Cancer Center is recruiting patients to test out the efficacy of treating advanced malignancies with alternative therapies.
On the other hand, the recent deaths of three people who were participating in a sweat lodge retreat, designed to cleanse the body of toxins, underscores a serious concern: The lack of regulation surrounding alternative therapies can lead to dangerous, even fatal consequences. Many doctors urge patients to proceed with caution when considering any therapy outside traditional medicine. The blanket term “alternative” covers a wide array of treatments, including some which have never been tested through proper clinical trials, and some that have already been proven to be ineffective or even detrimental.